Ancient History & Civilisation


Travelling Monsters


The Greeks who encountered these stories in and around Mount Kasios reacted to them in a typically Greek way. They did not ascribe them to a newly discovered god, ‘Kumarbios’ or ‘Tarrhuntas’. They credited them to their own Zeus. They added a local adjective to Zeus’s name, making a ‘Zeus Kasios’ who had a particular relevance to storms and rough seas, just as he had in his north Syrian home. They credited tales of Kumarbi to their own Cronos and tales of Tarhunta to their own ruling weather-god, Zeus.

Both these responses were characteristically Greek and, later, Roman too. We can compare the naming of Zeus Kasios with the later, exemplary transfer of another neo-Hittite cult into the Graeco–Roman world. The neo-Hittite weather-god had an active shrine and cult up in the mountains of Syrian Commagene at ancient Doliche, modern Tell Dülük. Not even a venturesome Euboean went up so far north and discovered it. The cult persisted, ignored by the great waves of Alexander and Graeco–Roman history, but it was then encountered by Roman soldiers, perhaps first by soldiers serving in the region in the 70s AD. Soldiers, then and later, helped to spread the cult. They identified this weather-god as Jupiter ‘Dolichenus’, giving him an adjective of place.1 They then took over his imagery in exact detail. We see the god in the Roman west on monuments which are some of our best images of a neo-Hittite god: he retains the characteristic pigtail and belted skirt, a double-headed axe in one hand, a thunderbolt in the other. He is particularly worshipped by soldiers in the Roman world and he retains his role as a god with power over mining and metals. He is the pair to ‘Zeus Kasios’, but unfortunately we have no early images of that Zeus in Euboean company when he, too, would have worn his neo-Hittite dress.

Euboeans also equated the gods of the ancient ‘song of kingship’ with their own Cronos and Zeus. In my view they already had an old story of their gods’ succession which helped them make this transfer, but behind it lay a constant Greek belief, one which we know best in Herodotus, the great Greek traveller and enquirer. For Herodotus, in general the ‘gods are the same everywhere’ and when confronted with cults and names abroad his instinct is to ‘read’ them as his own Greek gods: ‘the power of attraction was greater than the power of repulsion’. So it was already for our Euboeans, even when faced with the repulsive details of the Great Castrator. It is a persistent Greek attitude, of which they are the first known example. Their encounters with foreigners were not coloured by the belief that such people’s religion was false and inferior, the belief that tinges Christians, Muslims, Hindus or atheists nowadays.

Once made, the equation with a Greek god could be usefully applied elsewhere. Through Greeks’ direct contact with the Near Eastern stories Cronos came to be credited with devouring his own children. When Euboeans travelled to Tyre or Amathus, Carthage or Sulcis, they too discovered that Phoenicians offered infants to their gods. They were not wrong in this perception, although Near Eastern archaeologists have sometimes wished they were: Greeks identified the receiving god of this cult (Baal Hammon, in particular) as Cronos, their only god with a history of consuming babies.2 Romans later equated him with their Cronos-equivalent, Saturn. One side of Saturn and Cronos had been agrarian, festive and tinged with a ‘golden age’. Greek contact with the Near East brought a darker element into his story which helped, however, to translate what Phoenicians did.3 Cronos retained this grim usefulness, which became attached to one side of his myth and personality: it is the reason why some of the warlike, ferocious gods in western Asia were later interpreted as Cronos too.4

In the old Hittite story, Kumarbi had eaten his children, but then he was given a stone instead. Our one text of this episode is still fragmentary, but its scholars infer that Kumarbi threw the stone away, ordering it (perhaps) to be named and apparently to be preserved and paid cult.5 There is a widespread history of ‘sacred’ stones in Syrian and Levantine religion and we are far from sure which of them was worshipped, which symbolized a god or how their public received them. However, Kumarbi’s stone was set up somewhere in honour, and one natural guess is that it was set up on or near Mount Hazzi, the seat of the Storm God, whose life it had helped to save. There is, then, an obvious possibility. Coins from Seleucus’ city in the plain below Mount Hazzi show a prominent conical stone in a pillared shrine which is captioned ‘Zeus Kasios’ and topped by the eagle which was so important for the god and his role in founding the city.6 This stone is not obviously symbolizing a mountain. It is better understood as a symbol, or attribute, of the god himself. It may then be an image of the ancient stone which Kumarbi had tried to eat instead of Tarhunta–Zeus, thereby saving his son’s life. Perhaps an image of the stone stood in a temple to him down in Seleucus’ city, but it is much more attractive to see the captioned shrine as the shrine up on Mount Kasios itself, the Jebel Aqra, which lay in the city’s territory. Perhaps, as in the ancient myth, a stone was preserved there, at least until Christian monks turned the site into a monastery.7

In the Greek world, as we shall see, such a stone had an exact and instructive eighth-century location. Meanwhile there are subsequent threads in the ‘song of kingship’ which need to be tracked. The struggles among the gods on the Jebel Aqra did not end with the castration of Heaven, the ancient sky-god. The victor Kumarbi was then deposed by his own son, the child whom he had tried to devour. This son was the god of storms and weather. From his seat on the mountain he then had to survive enemies whom the older gods raised up against him. Kumarbi fathered several monsters to challenge him, including a snaky monster followed by a gigantic monster of stone.

Meanwhile on the south side of the Jebel Aqra there were old Canaanite stories of the Storm God’s triumph over a snaky monster too. He was ‘Ltn’ (‘Litanu’ or ‘Lotan’), ‘the coiling serpent, the tyrant of seven heads’. We know about him from fragmentary tablets found at Ras Shamra which date to the thirteenth century BC, but we can be sure that his story continued to be told in the Levant in the ninth and eighth centuries. It left a mark then on the contemporary prophets and psalmists, who can still be read in the Hebrew Scriptures.8 Just as Baal had defeated snaky ‘Litanu’, so Yahweh was said to have bound snaky ‘Leviathan’. Once again Israel’s Yahweh was credited with deeds like those of his neighbouring heathen gods. On his holy mountain Sion he had prevailed over ‘the dragon and the sea’, just as Baal had prevailed over a dragon on his holy mountain Sapanu, the Jebel Aqra. Hebrew prophets and psalmists continued to exploit the theme of this victory. Optimists even saw it as the prelude, or prequel, to Yahweh’s victory over all the foreign oppressors of Israel.

That sequel has yet to happen, but back in the eighth century BC these stories could influence Israel because they were still being told in the nearby Phoenician cities. They were alive, then, when Greeks traded and settled in or near these cities: the Greeks, too, developed stories of their ruling god’s triumphs. In them, their Storm God Zeus overthrows the very father Cronos who had tried to devour him as a baby. Zeus then has to survive counter-attacks from rivals, including a snaky monster Typhon. When we first meet Typhon in any detail, he has a part in Hesiod’s poem the Theogony (c. 715–705 BC).9 On his first appearance in it he is ‘terrible, insolent and lawless’, the monster, ‘they say’, who mated with Echidna (‘Miss Viper’), a virgin at the time. Echidna lived far away ‘beneath the earth in Arima’. Here, Hesiod knows of the same mysterious location as Homer and like Homer he presents his knowledge of Typhon as hearsay. Much later in the poem Typhon appears in more detail and fights a dreadful combat of his own. Now we learn that he is the youngest child of mother Earth. A hundred snake’s-heads grow from his shoulders whose tongues flicker and whose eyes flash fire. These heads make all sorts of noises, sometimes emitting sounds which the gods could understand, sometimes sounding like an animal, a bull or a lion or a pack of young hounds. Zeus fought this polyphonic monster with his weapons of thunder and lightning causing the ‘whole earth and heaven to seethe’. He scorched Typhon’s snaky heads, ‘lashed’ him and threw him, shattered, to the ground.

It is arguable whether this fuller second description of Typhon and his battle featured in Hesiod’s original poem or not, but for the moment the important point is that these Greek stories inarguably match details of the stories of combat and snaky battles in the earlier Hittite stories. In Homer’s Iliad, too, Zeus ‘lashes’ Typhon, and, by philological argument, this precise wording has been taken back to a supposed Indo–European origin and then traced forwards through a range of subsidiary languages.10 Even if true, this type of linguistic conjecture does not explain when and where the Hittite and the Greek stories came into contact and took on a similar content. Their similarities are very striking. Like Kumarbi, the Greek Cronos eats his children; like the Storm God, Zeus escapes and overthrows his father. Like the Storm God, Zeus then has to contend with a snaky monster whom he beats and ‘lashes’ as his captive. Like the far-flung sickle of Cronos, the battles and travails of Typhon are subjects for a historical and topographical treatment: the results bring them exactly into the horizons of travelling Euboeans.


We happen to have three different stories of the contests of the Hittite Storm God and a snaky opponent. Two are extremely old and are known only in a single text from c. 1250 BC which ascribes them to one Kella, the priest of the ‘storm-god of Nerik’. The other, the ‘song of Hedammu’, began, like so much else, as an older story which the Hittites took over. Its context among Hittite songs has gradually become clearer to us.

Kella the storytelling priest told how the Storm God was once defeated by a hostile snake.11 The Storm God summoned the other gods for advice, with the result that the goddess Inara prepared a feast with copious wine and other drink. She enlisted a mortal helper, who insisted on sleeping with her as a price for his help: she then dressed up and lured the serpent from his hole by inviting him to eat and drink at her banquet. The serpent and his children ate and swelled up; they were unable to return to the hole and so the goddess’s mortal helper tied up the serpent and the Storm God slaughtered him. The story went on to tell how the goddess installed her helper in a high-rise house on a rock but that he caught sight of his wife and children from her skyscraper and longed to go home. Thereupon the goddess killed him. The boundaries between gods and mortals, the story implies, are not to be transgressed, not even by sexual passion.

In the second story, the serpent began by defeating the Storm God, whereupon he stole the god’s heart and eyes. The Storm God married a poor man’s daughter and fathered a son. He waited and in due course this son married the serpent’s daughter. The son then asked his new family to give him his father’s heart and eyes: he received them and returned them to the Storm God. The Storm God then went down to the sea again and killed both the serpent and his own son, who had been obliged to fight on the side of his family-by-marriage.

These two tautly narrated stories of serpent-wars are rich in wordplay and in wider references to aspects of Hittite culture. The second story exploits a pattern of Hittite marriage, whereby a son-in-law asks for a price from his new bridal family (in this case he asks for his father’s heart and eyes) and, on payment, joins his bride’s family and deserts his own. The first story is explicitly linked to the role of the king in the important purulli festival: ‘Let the land grow and thrive and let the land be protected,’ participants declared, ‘and when it grows and thrives they perform the festival of purulli.’ Almost nothing else is known of this festival except that it coincided with a renewal of growth in nature, perhaps in autumn, and honoured the all-important waters and rivers on which that growth depends.12

The topography of the two stories is different. The purulli festival, we are told, commemorated the entrusting to the king of underground waters, apparently a ‘river of the watery abyss’ which descends to the underworld.13 The first of the two stories places the Storm God’s battle at Kiskilussa, a place name which scholars locate in northern Anatolia near the Kizil Irmak river, about 40 miles inland from the southern coastline of the Black Sea. In the second story, however, the Storm God is fighting ‘by the sea’. This sea could be our Black Sea north of Kiskilussa, but the story could also have travelled southwards as Hittite rule extended there too. Then the ‘sea’ would be the Mediterranean sea off Cilicia, the Kizzuwatna of Hittite topography.

These stories are extremely old, existing long before our Euboeans reached Cilicia and north Syria, but we have artistic evidence that stories of snaky combat persisted into neo-Hittite times too. At Malatya in north Syria a stone relief in the local ruler’s Lion Gate shows two figures confronting a snake-monster. One of them, armed with a lance, is a god and the other is his helper. Objects from the sky are shown striking the monster’s body and may well be thunderbolts, the god’s weapon. This battle between a god and a snake-monster shows that stories of the combat had lived into the neo-Hittite era: the sculpture is dated by its scholars to the tenth century BC.14 It brings these tales of combat close to the time when Greeks were among the visitors to Cilicia, north Syria and their coast.

We also have a third Hittite story, which is separate from the two told long ago by Kella the priest.15 The essence of it is that the storm-god Teshub confronted a snaky monster called Hedammu which the previous king in heaven, Kumarbi, had raised against him by fathering it on a daughter of the sea-god. Once again he was eventually saved by the loyal goddess Inara. This time she lured the snake-monster from the sea, charmed him with music, plied him with drink and appeared naked before him, exciting him sexually. Our text of the story unfortunately breaks off here, but we know that Hedammu was then defeated by the weather-god: perhaps he was thrown into the sea. As his next move, Kumarbi chose to send a monster of stone to do battle; we now see why. Unlike the snake it would be unmoved by drink and sex.

For some while scholars did not realize that the surviving fragments of this story belonged among the stories of the other succession-struggles between the gods in the Hittite heaven. In fact, Hedammu was one story in this same group and belonged, therefore, in that very ‘song of kingship’ which we have found to have been sung in honour of Mount Hazzi, the Jebel Aqra. The text’s surviving fragments have been rearranged to give a significant gain to our knowledge. At the beginning of Hedammu’s story, a god, surely Kumarbi himself, declares: ‘[I come] from the mountain ‘Mountain’; [I raised] a dragon.’16 This ‘Mountain’ is none other than Mount Hazzi, the Jebel Aqra. The story of Hedammu was not only sung by choirs on the mountain’s lower slopes: it was set on and around Mount Hazzi itself. The sea from which the snake-monster came and into which (no doubt) it was thrown was the sea below Mount Hazzi, either the sea at the mountain’s base or the sea on the side of our ‘triangle’ which runs across from Cyprus to Cilicia. At the foot of this very mountain Euboean travellers settled and on this same gulf of the sea they travelled to the kingdom in southern Cilicia which they equated, optimistically, with their very own Greek prophet Mopsus.

Most remarkably, clear echoes of these three old Hittite stories survive in out-of-the-way late Greek sources, somehow resonating across as much as 1,500 years. Three particular texts have long been seen to be relevant. One is an erudite poem on fishing by Oppian (c. AD 180); another, the first two books of a long, learned and highly rhetorical epic about Dionysus by Nonnus, a Christian and a ‘wandering poet’ who travelled from his home in Egypt in the early fifth century AD (c. 430). The third is a prose ‘library’ of mythological Greek stories falsely ascribed to the scholarly Apollodorus of Athens but actually written in the first or second century AD. These sources may seem obscure supports for arguments about the eighth century BC, but they have particular aspects which make them more valuable on these topics. Oppian lived in south Cilicia, close to the very coastline which looks across to Cyprus or south-east to the Jebel Aqra: he knew the shore, its myths and its topography from personal experience.17 Nonnus used earlier sources, mostly lost to us, but he also travelled through Syria and into Asia Minor, visiting some of the cities whose local myths he versified and researched on his travels. ‘He was not shut up in the one Library at Alexandria’, his great expert, Louis Robert, well understood, ‘in order to write at random, aiming to produce piles of papyrus before they were then clumsily integrated into the plan of a new epic about Dionysus. He was a traveller, giving “recitals” of his works’, often in the very cities which his poem honoured and dignified.18 As for the prose book of myths, a brilliant study of its section on Zeus and Typhon has established that an earlier Greek hexameter poem underlies its wording. It was probably a learned poem of the Hellenistic age and as such would have drawn on earlier sources.19

Each of the three sources, then, has much more authority than the late date of their authors suggests. When Oppian alludes to the war of Zeus and Typhon, he describes how Typhon was lured by a banquet (a ‘fish-picnic’) and came out of his capacious pit to eat on the seashore: Zeus blasted him there with thunder and lightning and beat his heads on the rocks. The luring of the snake-monster by a banquet goes back to one of the two old Hittite tales which were combined and told by Kella the priest c. 1250 BC.20Nonnus, by contrast, describes gigantic ‘Star Wars’ between Zeus and Typhon in which Typhon steals the storm-god’s thunderbolts and lightning and also takes away his sinews. He hides them in a cave by the sea, but he is then enchanted by the power of music, played to him by the hero Cadmus. He hands over the sinews and falls into a musical trance, whereupon Cadmus reclaims Zeus’s thunder and lightning too. Battles with Zeus ensue in which Nonnus excellently describes the gigantic size and dangerousness of the monster Typhon, who is covered not even to the waist when he stands armed with cliffs and mountains, challenging heaven, in the waves of the Aegean sea. The music in his story recalls the music which charmed Hedammu in the old Hittite song; the encounter, like Hedammu’s, is also by the seashore; the theft of Zeus’s sinews recalls the theft of the Storm God’s ‘heart and eyes’ in the Hittite song too.21

The relation between the two types of stolen items is clearer in the third version, the prose book of myths. The gigantic Typhon’s head, we are told, brushed the stars; his hands spread to the east and west and a hundred dragon’s-heads grew from each of them; from his thighs downwards he was made of hissing vipers. Zeus attacked him with thunderbolts and at close quarters with an ‘adamantine sickle’. He chased him precisely to Mount Kasios, the Jebel Aqra, but Typhon overcame him, seized the sickle and cut out his sinews. He took them away to the seashore in Cilicia, wrapped them in a bearskin and gave them to the she-dragon Delphyne. She guarded them in a cave, but the god Hermes and goat-Pan recovered them, and fitted them back onto Zeus. They enabled him to return in his chariot and blast and batter Typhon to defeat. Again, the Hittite echoes here are clear: the setting on Mount Kasios, the theft of the sinews (in Hittite, the ‘heart and eyes’), the use of the ‘adamantine sickle’ (surely the same sickle which had castrated Heaven and which the Hittite gods were to use in their next round of cosmic battles). The name Delphyne is unique in Greek myths but it can be given a Hittite derivation. The bearskin is unique too. Nonnus, perhaps, has made one theft into two, the ‘sinews’ being symbols of thunder and lightning, although he passed over their theft on Mount Hazzi and their cutting by the ancient weapon.

These stories share the same location: the seashore of Cilicia where a cave contained the stolen sinews and a ‘capacious pit’ held the monster himself. In Homer, however, we hear of a different name, ‘Arima’ or ‘the Arimoi’, where Typhon is still being lashed: in Hesiod it is the place where his snaky mate Echidna lives. So we return to the problem with which this book began: where are these ‘Arimoi’ or ‘Arima’, a people or a place where the ground shakes mightily just as the ground once resounded beneath the feet of the advancing Greek army as battle began at Troy? The ancients themselves were uncertain; moderns have differed, or multiplied opinions. But the question can now be answered, squarely in the horizon of Euboean travelling heroes.


We have already met one resting place for Typhon in our study of the travelling Mount Kasios. On the eastern arm of the Nile Delta, Typhon was said to have been ‘hidden’ by the victorious Zeus in Egypt. Beside Lake Bardawil, the surrounding marsh is the famous ‘Serbonian bog’, where the battered monster lay defeated and his hot breath is still faint but visible in the midday heat-haze above the ground. This Egyptian resting place for him was already known to Herodotus, but it goes back much earlier to Greek visitors to this arm of the Delta before c. 580 BC. It has an important implication. Those Greeks who believed it had already associated the struggles of Zeus and Typhon with the real Mount Kasios, the parent of this Egyptian hillock, the true Mount Hazzi on the north Syrian coast. When they found a second ‘Mount Kasios’ in Egypt they readily located Typhon there too, as part of its ‘Kasian’ ambience. They were encouraged, no doubt, by the Egyptians’ stories which told of a fight between the gods and the turbulent, disruptive Seth, a Typhon-like enemy.

This Egyptian resting place, however, was never connected with ‘Arima’. This silence is notable because such a range of sites was eventually linked with the name. The candidates are short-listed by the geographer Strabo (c. 20 BC), who could no longer choose between them: Lydia, Syria, Cilicia, and even Sicily and the west. These ancient theories have been dismissed as ‘evidently the product of learned speculation’ or as ‘des créations plus ou moins artificielles’.22 But they were not made at random. They never included Lake Bardawil, the Egyptian bog where Typhon still breathed. In fact, each of them makes excellent sense when considered in terms of its landscape.

We can trace the location in Lydia back to the mid-fifth century BC. It was then that the local historian, Xanthus of Lydia, placed a king Arimous in the region called Burnt Lydia where he must have ruled over so-called ‘Arimoi’. In due course ancient scholars even adjusted their texts of Homer’s Iliad to place the Arimoi near Sardis ‘because the place is wooded and struck by lightning’.23 Indeed it is, because the plain east of Sardis soon starts to show the black, scorched scars of volcanic eruptions. On its north-east edge the aptly named Burnt Lydia begins, leading on to the village of Kula where the black cones of dead volcanoes loom large in the landscape. In the 1820s William Arundell travelled here in search of the ‘seven Christian churches of Asia’ cited in the biblical book of Revelation. Instead he found a landscape scarred by the wrath of God. ‘Ascending the mountain’, he wrote, ‘and looking back on Koolah, the view was extraordinary…the lava rock range looked like the blackness of a burnt forest or as if the waves of the ocean in a violent gale had suddenly been vitrified, the colour black instead of green, the same striking contrast with the houses and minarets and trees while over the volcanic mountain rose the full moon, giving from some atmospheric cause a most lurid light.’24 How better could the ancients explain this landscape than as the site of the battle between Zeus and fire-breathing Typhon?

In Nonnus’ erudite poem (c. AD 430) the details are even more exact because they are drawn from his own local researches and from earlier sources now lost to us. At Lydian ‘Statala’, he tells us, Typhon belched out fire and smoke when struck by Zeus’s thunderbolt. He burnt the land until a priest of Lydian Zeus left his nearby temple and halted the monster with two powerful words: ‘stop, you wretch’ (stēthi, talan). The blazing monster halted. This rare local myth has been brilliantly explained by its connoisseur, Louis Robert.25 ‘Statala’ is the ancient Satala, the modern Adali–Karata, which lies on the western edge of Burnt Lydia’s volcanic outreach. Down the nearby river-valley had come a great outflow of lava from the volcanic crater of the Kaplan Alan, which lies 10 miles away to the east, the burnt landscape whose slopes are now ‘wooded’ as the ancient scholars recognized when changing their texts of Homer. One long tongue of this lava poured amazingly far down the valley and stopped precisely at ancient Satala on the edge of the plain of Sardis. Surely, its future onlookers thought, a hero had stopped it. Below volcanic Mount Etna in Sicily the brave Christian St Agatha would supposedly cut off her breasts and throw them to an advancing flood of lava so as to halt it before it scorched her town of Catania. At Satala, however, a pagan male priest of Zeus halted the lava with words, not breasts: ‘Stā, talan’, two Greek words which explained the origin of the place name ‘Statala’. The landscape and the place name gave rise to this memorable rationalization.

To the west of Satala lay something else, the gloomy lair of Typhon’s concubine Echidna (‘Miss Viper’). To the north of Sardis stretches the great ‘Salisbury Plain’ of Lydian burial mounds, huge man-made tumuli which once contained the Lydian kings. On the northern edge of this plain the ground turns into a swampy lake, Lake Gygaia or Koloe (the modern Mermere Gélül). Water-birds, including cranes, and clouds of mosquitoes still gather on this melancholy stretch of water which is thickly covered with great clumps of reeds. The reeds even form into small islands which can be made to move: in antiquity these ‘dancing’ reeds, a valuable resource, were honoured with a yearly festival. The lake was always extremely rich in fish and even now a few fishing-boats are kept on its shallows. But this gloomy swamp had a grimmer resident, Echidna herself.26 To the east, in Burnt Lydia, flaming Typhon had scorched the landscape. In Lake Gygaia his Echidna lived on in the swamp.

Myths about the two of them made brilliant sense of two eerie Lydian landscapes and as a result the ‘Arima’ of Homer and Hesiod was interpreted as a people (‘Arimoi’) and given an inland home beyond Sardis. This home was not ‘the product of learned speculation’. It was the conclusion of people who had travelled, looked at the landscape and been justly terrified.27 But it was not Homer’s location for Typhon’s ‘lashing’: the monster was not still being beaten there. Only later did Xanthus, himself from Lydia, advance this local candidate for Typhon’s ‘Arimoi’.

As Mount Kasios was such a scene of battles with ancient ‘dragons of the sea’, north Syria may seem a much more promising candidate for Arima’s true location. However, it was not seriously argued, so far as we know, until c. 100 BC, and then only by Posidonius, a man from Syrian Apamea. He had various arguments apart, perhaps, from local pride.28 The ‘Arimoi’ were surely Aramaeans, the people in northern Syria whose Aramaic language continued to be widely spoken. ‘Typhon’, he claimed, was the ancient name of north Syria’s Orontes river: it had been cut out of the landscape by Typhon the monster when he was struck by Zeus and burrowed underground to escape.29

Each of these arguments had evidence to support it. From the lower slopes of the Jebel Aqra the serpentine course of the Orontes river is still visible as it snakes away through its clearly cut bed. It became known as ‘the Serpent’ in Greek, perhaps because of its shape rather than because of any non-Greek evidence that the river was associated with battles between the weather-god and his snaky enemy.30 In Assyrian texts of the eighth and seventh centuries BC the ‘land of Aram’ is indeed described as ‘the land A-ri-mi’ and its people are known as A-ra-me.31 However, the names which royal Assyrian scribes used did not influence Greek visitors to this region. Greeks always talked of ‘Mount Kasios’, from ‘Hazzi’, not Saphon from the Assyrians’ sa-pu-na. They never met the Assyrians’ writers: the Greeks’ ‘Arima’ began with a short ‘ă’ in quantity, not the long vowel-sound of the Assyrians’ A-ra-me. Strabo did refer to a holy cave on Mount Kasios, but the only local candidates for the cave in question have no connection with a snake-monster.32 At most, our later Greek sources listed some preliminary struggles with Typhon in this area. He severed Zeus’s sinews, we hear, on Mount Kasios: in the ancient stories he had been battered in or near the adjoining sea, so he might have snaked away to escape the onslaught. Had he cut the river-bed of the Orontes beyond the mountain and then disappeared like its river into its underground channels? But he was not still being ‘lashed’ there in his lair, nor was the viper Echidna anywhere near him.

The Aramaeans, then, are a false trail. Strabo’s third candidate, Cilicia, is also in the Cilician–Levantine triangle but it is very much more promising. In the early fifth century BC Pindar described the lair which ‘nurtured Typhon’ as the ‘highly celebrated Cilician cave’: it was presumably there, as we know in a fragment of one of his lost poems, that he claimed that ‘once, among the Arimoi’, Zeus had battered Typhon, the monster with ‘fifty’ heads.33 If this cave was ‘highly celebrated’ for Pindar’s audience, its location in Cilicia was older than his lifetime. It also persisted locally. A hundred and forty years after Pindar we can follow it with the help of Callisthenes, the historical adviser of Alexander the Great.

According to Callisthenes, ‘the Arimoi are located by the Corycian cave near Calycadnus and the promontory of Sarpedon: the neighbouring mountains are called “Arima”’.34 Callisthenes’ conclusion was not the guess of an armchair scholar. In the autumn of 333 BC he had ample opportunity to pursue his researches by fieldwork in Cilicia while his king Alexander lay sick at Tarsus. He had a scholarly interest in Homeric questions; he had worked with Aristotle on a text of the Iliad for his royal patron, the same Alexander whom the world of the Homeric hero inspired and fascinated. Callisthenes had checked and explained the diverse evidence along this coastline for Mopsus the prophet and his complex wanderings. Of course, as a lover of Homer he also wanted to solve the vexed location of the Arimoi and Typhon’s ‘lashing’ in the second book of the Iliad.

From two separate angles his location of the site near the coast of southern Cilicia can be shown to be anything but ‘learned speculation’. In Hittite treaties of the Bronze Age we have the place name ‘Arimmatta’, which lies north, however, of Callisthenes’ location, being sited in the mountains up near modern Konya. It might, however, have been applied further south at a second site with similar distinctive features to the northern one.35 We also have the separate Hittite place name ‘Erimma’, which certainly lay in Cilicia. ‘Erimma’ is mentioned in connection with the boundary running between the Hittite empire and its adjacent Cilician kingdom. One part of this boundary was set to run along what must be the Lamos river ‘towards the sea’. Callisthenes’ site for the ‘Arima’ mountains lies precisely near this Lamos river and although the location of ‘Erimma’ is not wholly certain in the treaty, it is an old Hittite name, probably one from the very area to which Callisthenes refers.36 Once again, therefore, a place name in southern Cilicia lived on from the old Hittite past: in 333 BC the locals in Cilicia told Alexander’s historian of this ‘Arima’, an age-old point of reference. There is also the evidence of the Cilician landscape itself. Near the Calycadnus river, about 10 miles east of Seleuceia (the modern Silifke) and scarcely a mile inland from the sea, the ground collapses into two dramatic ravines, which are known nowadays in Turkish as ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’.37 The local limestone has been loosened by an underlying river, resulting in a ‘cave lying open with eaten-away rocks’ as the Roman poet Lucan (c. AD 60) correctly described its nature. The smaller of the two ravines (Hell) is inaccessible, but the larger (Heaven) used to have a rough path (nowadays, sadly, replaced by a long flight of modern steps) which descended to the floor some 200 feet below its rim. In the shade of the cliffs grew one of nature’s great prizes: saffron crocuses, which were widely believed to be the finest in the world. In the mid-second century AD the doctor Galen even recorded how he went in person down into the abyss to inspect the crocuses ‘exactly’. They did not impress him, he said, as especially fine crocuses or as strongly scented ones, but despite Galen the orange stigmata of their flowers remained an invaluable source of scent, dye and spices. These ‘Corycian crocuses’ continued to command the highest prices in lists of goods and customs-dues as late as c. AD 400.38

The Corycian crocuses grew, accessibly, by the Corycian cave, the exact site mentioned by Pindar and Callisthenes. They had vanished, however, when the gorge was rediscovered for western scholarship by the Russian traveller Tchihatchev on 30 June 1853. The scholarly Theodore Bent then revisited it in 1890 and found precisely the ‘encircling eyebrow of a cliff’ which Strabo had mentioned and the thick undergrowth kept ‘fresh and green’ by the shade of the great rocks. ‘This brushwood is now very thick,’ Bent reported, ‘and far more luxuriant than it is ever found on the upper and more exposed plateau. Here, too, are many pomegranates, the fruit of which the nomads come to gather in late summer…’ Bent checked for the crocus, ‘but we could find no trace of it now, though it is common enough in the surounding district’.39

A cave on the floor of this ravine is noted in our fullest ancient description of the site, given by the minor ancient geographer Pomponius Mela (c. AD 50). 40 His Latin draws on others’ first-hand reports of the place, but he notes, correctly, the thick vegetation of the main chasm. He adds that a ‘low cave’ opens off its floor. Inside it, he says, runs an underground river which gives off echoes of a strange divine music: this river, the ancient Aous, still flows beyond human reach, running south-westwards for about a mile to the bay now known in Turkish as ‘Sweet Water’.41 In late antiquity the river supplied a fine bathhouse here which was adorned with a mosaic floor of the Three Graces. It flowed on under the shore, as it still does, emerging in the open sea and accounting for the strange sight of cattle being watered among the salt waves: they are taken to drink the river’s fresh water where it bubbles up. In antiquity this Aous river (the ‘eastern one’) was believed to run on under the sea and rise, some 40 miles away, in Cyprus, where there was a similarly named Aous river too. The bad Roman poet Cinna connected Adonis, son of an ‘eastern’ Aous, with this Cypriot river, but he certainly did not locate Adonis at the Corycian cave or among its crocuses.42

The cave’s associations were very different. In due course a temple was built at its very entrance, probably in the third century BC, and was dedicated to the gods, formalizing offerings which had no doubt been paid there for many years. On the wall of the cave one visitor, c. AD 200, arranged for the inscription of some apt Greek verses: ‘Before entering the broad recess in the depths of the earth in Arima, where the echoing Aous disappears with voiceless streams, I, Eupaphis, propitiated Pan and Hermes…’43 One pilgrim among many over the years, Eupaphis accepted that the site of the cave lay in elusive ‘Arima’. He also accepted that Pan and Hermes were the relevant local divinities. The reason is beautifully clear to us. The goat-god Pan and Hermes are exactly the gods whom Oppian and our prose book of Greek myths, with its earlier poetic source, had specified as Zeus’s helpers in the recovery of Zeus’s stolen sinews. In this very cave ‘in Arima’, therefore, Typhon had hidden the parts which he had cut from Zeus with the sickle and wrapped in a protective bearskin. Hermes and Pan had then recovered them from the abyss.

This site, the ‘Corycian cave’, is thus the site of a truly alarming pre-Christian myth. We can understand why a pagan temple, apparently to Zeus, was built so far down inside this gorge, right by the cave’s entrance. In inscriptions found at the nearby settlement of Corycos, Zeus is specifically entitled the ‘Zeus of Victory’, referring to his victory, therefore, in the war with Typhon.44 We can also understand why the temple by the cave was laboriously replaced with a Christian church, which reused its stones and pillarsc. AD500. The church is the most deliberate Christian counterweight to an old pagan holy place. It, too, was set very far down the gorge, on the floor of the steep chasm where it would cancel out the demonic presences in the cave beyond: goat-Pan, Hermes and the snaky Typhon. When Gertrude Bell reclaimed knowledge of this church for scholarship in 1906, she found it had been dedicated to the Virgin Mary.45

Like Adonis’ Aphaca, this natural sanctuary is still a place for prayers: Turkish visitors tie strips of cloth on the bushes to mark their requests for blessings. However, the low entrance to the river-cave was not the recognized entrance to Typhon’s own lair. Here, Pomponius Mela is decisive: ‘There is a narrow mouth, extremely cramped, as those who have tried it have reported, which is therefore steeped in continual darkness and never easy to see through…but it is memorable both in nature and in myth, because it is the lair of Typhon and also because it kills at once whatever is thrown into it…’46 This ‘narrow mouth’ is not the cave on the floor of Heaven’s ravine nor is it in the more northerly ravine now known as Hell. Until recently boys on the site would take willing visitors to a small hole in the ground about 300 yards to the west of the main ravine down which we could climb into exactly the cramped darkness which Mela describes. A pathway runs here through rocks and stalactites in a narrow cavern while the sound of the Aous river, no longer ‘voiceless’, echoes eerily with Mela’s ‘divine music’ along the cleft. The deadliness of the fumes was an ancient exaggeration, but no visitor can mistake the sinister darkness of Typhon’s true lair.

The ‘Corycian cave’ is mentioned in our ancient histories of Alexander while Alexander lay sick in Cilicia and his army had to wait in the autumn months of 333 BC. In these months, while the saffron crocus was in flower, Callisthenes, like Galen after him, had perhaps gone on a personal visit to the ravine.47 Perhaps he had stood by the cave’s opening, like Eupaphis and the church-builders, Gertrude Bell and another historian of Alexander (myself) many centuries after him. Perhaps, like Mela’s informants, he had seen the nearby chasm in which Typhon was said to have lain.

Not long after Callisthenes’ researches a temple was built near the upper rim of the main ravine (Heaven), on whose walls were inscribed names, over time, of the cult’s yearly priests. The temple, manifestly, was a temple to the god Hermes and perhaps to his helper Pan, the two gods who had recovered Zeus’s sinews from the cave below. Several of the priests’ names are based on Hermes’ own, but even more of them are based on pre-Greek roots which go back to the Luwian language of the late Hittite period.48Quite a few of them are based on the name of the Hittite god of deer and flocks (‘Runza’ or ‘Runt’), the god whom Greeks understood as Pan. The priests’ names thus reflect precisely the importance of Pan and Hermes, the gods whom they served in their temple’s cult.

This cult helps to explain the knowledge surviving as late as c. AD 180 in Oppian’s poem on fishing. Oppian describes himself as the ‘giver of delight and singer of hymns at the shrines of Hermes in Cilicia’. These ‘shrines’, we now realize, include the shrine of Hermes at the chasm of the Corycian cave, one of several in this area. Here, Oppian had performed hymns, singing, no doubt, of the god’s saving role against the snaky menace of Typhon. He told a story which had traces of the old Hittite songs because the outline of those songs had lived on in this former centre of neo-Hittite culture. He also knew the existence of traces of Zeus’s battles along the coastline. He tells how the god beat Typhon’s ‘hundred heads’ on the rocks and ‘even now, tawny banks along the seashore are red with the blood of the struggles with Typhon’.49 These ‘banks’ are tawny stone cliffs, not banks of soft sand: 5 miles to the north-east of the Corycian cave, at Kanytelleis in the territory of ancient Elaioussa, another huge ravine plunges deep into the ground, known nowadays as Kanli Divane (meaning in Turkish, ‘the crazy place of blood’). There is no cave or underground river here, but the tawny face of its rock is marked with conspicuous streaks of red. From the fifth century AD onwards Christians built no fewer than four basilica-churches by the rim of this ravine, which plunges down to a depth of 200 feet. No text survives to explain this surge of new Christian building, but pagan buildings had existed on this site at least since the third century BC, including another temple deep down, it seems, on the ravine’s floor.50 At this ravine, I suggest, the cluster of Christian buildings was another counterweight, designed to cancel the marks of Typhon’s demonic blood on the cliff below and the existence of a cult of Zeus beside or inside the ravine itself. The red on the rock face could be reinterpreted in Christian terms as the bloodstains of legendary Christian martyrs, acceptable heroes in this old pagan place. From these stories, perhaps, the Turkish name developed: it refers to a belief that condemned criminals were once thrown to wild animals in the deep ravine.

When did Greeks first encounter the cave, its pre-Greek place name (Erimma or Arimmatta) and the traces of old Hittite stories about these snake-wars? Their knowledge went back before Pindar and surely it went back to the eighth century BC when Greeks from Euboea and elsewhere were visiting southern Cilicia, discovering the long-lost traces of Mopsus and visiting the region’s ancient sites. On the river they found the religious centre, or hesty, of Muksas and called it ‘Mopsus’ hearth’. On the coast, near Corycos, they visited the awesome ravines and heard the place name ‘Arima’. They also heard the stories of serpent-wars which linked up with stories which they had already heard at Mount Kasios across the bay. Among the songs which were sung on that mountain was the song of the monstrous serpent Hedammu and his wars with the Storm God. Up on the mountain, the Storm God had lost his sinews to the snake and now, in Cilician ‘Arima’ itself, Greek visitors learned where those sinews had been hidden and where the snaky monster had had its lair. But the site also had an obvious significance for Hittite religion and its accompanying songs. ‘Let the land grow and thrive and let the land be protected…’: at the ancient purulli festival the Hittite kings of the past had been entrusted with a ‘river of the watery abyss’ which descended to the world below. The rites may even have been celebrated at a specially built sacred pool and pit at one of their ancient palace-sites.51 Hittite kings had ruled in Bronze Age Cilicia and after their empire’s fall c. 1200 BC some of their culture had survived into the neo-Hittite age of the tenth to eighth centuries BC. If the ruling ‘house of Muksas’ had maintained the ancient purulli festival of the past, there was one ‘watery abyss’ above all others and one supreme ‘descending river’ in their south Cilician kingdom: they were the Corycian cave at ‘Arima’ and the Aous river which ran away into its depths. Perhaps the name Arimmatta had been applied to the site, transposed from the Arimmatta with a similar watery abyss which existed further to the north-west. No evidence survives, as yet, of late Hittite activity on the unexcavated site, but at the old purulli festival the songs which were recited were the songs of the Storm God and his serpent-wars. They had been sung, I suggest, for ruling members of the ‘house of Muksas’ who left their hesty at Misis and came down for continuing purulli festivals at the Corycian cave.52 Their continuing cult-performance explains how the old Hittite stories lived on to confront Greek visitors who passed them, in turn, into later Greek poetry. Cult, ritual and the landscape had kept these themes alive for centuries, until Euboeans and other Greek visitors heard about them on site in the eighth century BC.

In Greek the snake-monster became ‘Typhon’, a name of uncertain derivation. ‘Typhon’ did not derive from the Phoenicians’ name ‘Saphon’ for the Jebel Aqra mountain: a mountain, anyway, is not an apt origin for a snake. Perhaps, as Posidonius claimed, the nearby Orontes river had had a suggestive earlier name now lost to us, but the likelier guess, despite the short ‘ŭ’ of his name, is that ‘typhon’ derived from the Greeks’ own tūphōn, their ‘smoking’ and ‘smouldering’, like the ‘smoking’ monster whom Zeus set on fire. The change in the ‘u’-sound was perhaps more easily made during a transfer between two Greek words.53 At Arima, Greek visitors then saw this monster’s watery cave and, like subsequent travellers, stared down into the nearby cleft where the ‘divine music’ of the Aous river sounded underground. Manifestly it was Typhon’s ancient lair, the scene of the Storm God’s victory. But one question remained: where was the serpent nowadays? Some said he had been vanquished in the sea; others, that his bloodstains were visible on the nearby cliffs. But others, as Homer knew, said that Zeus, even now, was ‘lashing’ him from time to time while the ground above him shook. This ‘lashing’ cannot be by the Cilician shore. Its abysses and the Corycian cave are the results of erosion, not of earthquakes. The ground hardly shakes here and the Aous river, running out to sea, was a ‘voiceless stream’ to later pilgrims. The monster and his viperous mate had certainly lived here once, but to explain the continuing lashing and shaking yet another location is needed. It belongs at the heart of our Euboeans’ travels, supporting the view that it was they who first discovered Typhon in the cave and on great Mount Hazzi as they travelled to and fro between north Syria and the Cilician shore.


Far from Syria, far from Cilicia, Strabo knew a fourth location: there were those who placed Typhon in the west, under the island of Pithecussae, no less. The location is known to go back to the writings of Pherecydes of Athens (fifth century BC) but he was only reporting an older tradition.54 It was already known to Pindar in 470 BC and he exploits it in the wonderful ode, our First Pythian, which he composed for the Sicilian tyrant Hieron. ‘The sea-fencing cliffs off Cumae and the island of Sicily weigh on his shaggy chest’, the chest of ‘hundred-headed Typhon’, who lies buried beneath the earth. These cliffs are not cliffs ‘above’ Cumae, as translators tend to imply: Cumae’s site includes its steep acropolis, the coastline’s one high point. They are the cliffs ‘off’ it, the island-cliffs of Ischia, to a poet who imagines himself looking up from Sicily towards them.55 They include the ‘cliff’ of Ischia’s Monte Vico, the acropolis-hill on which the first Euboeans settled.

Why was Typhon located out here? The answer, again, is geological. On Ischia the hot breath of Typhon still penetrates the island’s soil, whether in the hot smoking springs on the beach of Marina dei Maronti or in the nearby Cavascura river, which runs steaming from the rocks to the mud-baths and springs of Casamicciola on the island’s northern coast. The entire region is scarred with the marks of the earth’s thin or punctured crust. To the south-east of Cumae lie the sulphurous ‘Phlegraean Fields’, which still hiss with hot vapours at the site of the modern Solfatara. On the coastline beyond Naples Mount Vesuvius smokes and boils from its volcanic crater. The first Greek settlers lived with evidence of Typhon all around them in the landscape. They even experienced him at his worst. Strabo records how in due course they were driven off Ischia by ‘earthquakes and eruptions of fire, sea and hot waters’. The volcanic history of the island is still not exactly dated, but archaeologists have found layers of volcanic dust and pebbles above the eighth-century levels of the recently identified Greek site at Punta Chiarito on the island’s south coast.56

We know precisely who these first settlers were. They were Euboeans from Chalcis and Eretria, arriving c. 770 BC. They or their friends also knew from first-hand experience Al Mina and the bay across to southern Cilicia. Like their Euboean cups and pottery they had reached Al Mina below Mount Kasios and like the ‘lyre-player’ seals with which they and their children were carefully buried on Ischia they knew southern Cilicia, their source, and its rule by the ‘house of Muksas’ or ‘Mopsus’. On and around Mount Kasios they had heard songs about the Storm God’s slaying of a serpent-monster. At the Cilician cave in ‘Arima’, they had seen where the serpent had had his lair. They had even seen the bloodstains of his battering against the nearby Cilician cliffs. Now in the west they saw and heard him being ‘lashed’ beneath the earth, hissing, flaming and occasionally turning and tossing in the volcanic chambers beneath Ischia.

There was another good reason for their discovery: as at Zancle, home of the ‘sickle’, it was supported by language. The first settlers called Ischia Pithecussae, the enigmatic ‘Monkey Island’, on which, though now lost to us, monkeys had lived and caught their attention. The island was not named at random. Here too the Greek settlers had asked for the local name, and from nearby Etruscans they learned it. Etruscans had a name for the island which meant, according to Greek sources, ‘monkey’: the Greeks, therefore, called it ‘Monkey Island’ too. Our understanding of the Etruscan language is still slight, but its experts accept the word in question, transmitted by Strabo’s sources and later Greek lexicographers, though not as yet found in an original Etruscan text. The word could hardly have been more significant: Arima.57

It was not just a coincidence; it seemed an omen from the gods. In Cilicia, at one place called Arima, Euboeans had found Typhon’s lair. Under Ischia, at another Arima, Euboeans had now found where Zeus was still ‘lashing’ him in punishment. From the moment they settled on the island, Typhon’s presence was visible, in the black lava-rock at Zaro, in the clouds of vapour at the island’s hot springs, in the rumblings which were already audible even before the monster tossed stupendously and showered the island again with volcanic fallout.

Within forty years Euboeans also settled on the east coast of Sicily, arriving first at Naxos, then at Leontini in the mid-730s BC. Every day here their view to the horizon was marked by the smoking cone of snow-capped Etna, another stupendous volcano. On Etna’s slopes the ground was burnt to cinders and even the bushes of its distinctive broom-trees had been blackened. Here fire-breathing Typhon had been battered one last time before being imprisoned for ‘lashing’.58 He was lying there too underground, pinned down by a mountain on his body. He was, after all, enormous, the physical match for any known giant. In the west he lay flat and extended, tossing and turning under Ischia, writhing in north-east Sicily, and seething offshore in the Lipari islands off Sicily’s north coast. Far from his Cilician cave he was being ‘lashed’ here by Zeus, pinned down in the second ‘Arima’.

These perceptions were first worked out by Euboeans between c. 770 and 730 BC and from their lateral thinking Pindar, three hundred years later, constructed the opening of his magnificent poem. He knew the fame of the Cilician cave which Euboeans had discovered, the cave which ‘nursed Typhon among the Arimoi’. He knew that Zeus had bound Typhon beneath the earth, from the islands off Cumae to Mount Etna, his ‘heavenward column’. He also knew facts of the landscape. He knew the snow on the peak of Etna, ‘nurse of the sharp snow throughout the year’. He knew how an eruption ‘belches out purest streams of unapproachable fire’ and hurls rocks as far as the sea, which Pindar then lands in the water with a fine poetic crash. He knew that Etna’s peaks are ‘dark-leaved’ because they are so blackened with lava and cinders, colouring their special vegetation.59 In the 470s Pindar was writing his poem for Hieron, who had founded a new town of Etna just beneath the mountain. Pindar knew what the local Greeks said about their strange landscape but his perceptions are so exact that he had surely witnessed Typhon in action ‘pricked by his rocky lair’. In the 470s Etna had burst into a volcanic eruption, and Pindar was out in the west at his patron’s request. ‘Il est permis de penser’, concludes Jacqueline Duchemin, the connoisseur of Pindar and his sources, ‘que le poète, avec ses hôtes, a fait lui-même l’excursion et qui’il s’est avancé peut-être à la rencontre de la lave brûlante.’60

Unlike the priest in Burnt Lydia he did not halt the lava with his words. Instead, Pindar was effusing in the wake of others’ white-hot theories, the theories of travelling Euboeans who had understood their western landscapes through what they had seen and heard in the east. From one Arima to the other, it was they who had first grasped the truth about Typhon, brilliantly piecing together the clues of landscape and place names and local stories which went back to the old Hittite songs of kingship and the sea.

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